Although at his death Hoch amazingly was nearing the 1000 mark in mystery short stories authored and had created an impressive array of series investigators, my favorite Hoch detective has remained Dr. Sam Hawthorne, the country physician who during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s solved a really quite surprisingly large number of impossible crimes (usually murders) in his not so peaceful little corner of New England.
Crippen & Landru, that wonderful mystery short story publisher, produced the first "Dr. Sam" story collection when it published the original dozen Dr. Sam stories as Diagnosis: Impossible in 1996 (this volume was the fourth book done by Crippen & Landru, after books by John Dickson Carr, Margery Allingham and Marcia Muller). Ten years later C&L followed with More Things Impossible, a collection of the next fifteen Dr. Sam tales (these originally appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine between 1978 and 1983).
|Edward D. Hoch|
The appeal of Hoch's Dr. Sam stories is twofold, I think.
First, they offer a dazzling mother lode of miracle problems--the sort of superbly ingenious, densely clued mystery puzzles associated most prominently in mystery genre history with the brilliant locked room novels and stories of John Dickson Carr. When I bought my copy of the first Dr. Sam collection way back in 1996, I was moved to write Professor Doug Greene, the distinguished mystery scholar and Crippen & Landru guru, an Edward D. Hoch fan letter, telling Doug that Hoch seemed to me "a certain mystery author reinCARRnated." The puzzles Dr. Sam confronts often are that clever.
Second, however, the stories have a great deal of appeal for their local and period color. Though Hoch never forgets he is presenting readers with a puzzle, he nevertheless manages as well in each story to give an appealing and convincing portrait of a time and place (charmingly, Dr. Sam's Northmont is a neighbor village to Ellery Queen's Shinn Corners--see EQ's The Glass Village). Indeed, I would say that the Dr. Sam stories not only boast many marvelous puzzles, but also that they constitute one of the mystery genre's finest collections of local color fiction.
More Things Impossible offers readers a bounty of fifteen mystery stories, dated from 1927 to 1931. In each one Hoch presents a fairly clued miracle problem. Only one of them I managed to fully deduce--and that was one Dr. Sam's not over-keen Watson, Sheriff Lens, managed to solve, which may tell you something! Opinions will vary, but my favorites are:
"The Problem of the Revival Tent"--Dr. Sam himself is the suspect when a revivalist huckster is stabbed to death in a tent which only he and Dr. Sam occupied. The man had a faith healing son who was filling some of Dr. Sam's incurable patients with false hope, enraging Dr. Sam. This is one of my very favorites in the collection, because the clueing to method and motive is so masterful (also it bears a certain resemblance in its subject matter to an important episode of the fine American television mystery series "The Mentalist").
"The Problem of the Whispering House"--Dr. Sam solves a murder in a sealed secret room in a haunted house. What more could you ask for than this highly Carrian setting?
"The Problem of the Courthouse Gargoyle"--Who poisoned the judge during the murder trial? And how?! Just how did the poison get into the glass? It seems impossible, but Dr. Sam deduces. This one reminded me a bit of John Dickson Carr's The Black Spectacles.
"The Problem of the Pilgrims Windmill"--This one introduces the Pilgrim Memorial Hospital, which is frequently mentioned in the stories. It also is one of Dr. Sam's most bizarre cases: a Satanic windmill that sets people in it afire. Though the setting is Carrian or Chestertonian (the author specifically references G. K. Chesterton), the problem itself is like one out of John Rhode, another clever creator of impossible crimes. There's also a bit of a lesson in social justice.
"The Problem of the Octagon Room"--Sheriff Lens is getting married! His fiancée has chosen to have the ceremony in the famous Octagon Room of a Cape Cod mansion. There's a bit of an impasse, however, when a corpse is found in that very room (when locked, naturally). Here Hoch references S. S. Van Dine's locked room murder in The Canary Murder Case, but even those who have read that classic crime novel may not deduce the solution!
"The Problem of the Bootlegger's Car"--Dr. Sam goes hard-boiled when he confronts an impossible vanishing while being held prisoner by a group of bootlegging gangsters. Carr crossed with Dashiell Hammett.
"The Problem of the Hunting Lodge"--"Who could have done it?...A tramp passing through the woods?" "A tramp who didn't leave footprints?" Dr. Sam's visiting parents appear in this one, which involves another clever impossible killing. No one on earth would really try to accomplish a murder this way, I suspect, but it's all fairly clued!
"The Problem of Santa's Lighthouse"--Perhaps my favorite story in More Things Impossible is this Christmas tale of an impossible murder in a haunted lighthouse (a man is stabbed and thrown down to the ground but it appears certain that no one else was near him at the time). In succession Hoch provides not one, but two, brilliant solutions. I dare you to get even one right (I partly did)!
By my count Edward Hoch wrote 72 Dr. Sam tales before his death, taking the brilliant amateur detective medico up to the end of World War Two. I so would have liked for Hoch to live to tell us of some of Dr. Sam's Cold War exploits, but what he gave us is, as is, one of the very finest bodies of short fiction in the history of the mystery genre.
Crippen & Landru has a third Dr. Sam collection in the planning stage, I understand. All devotees of classic puzzle and local color mystery fiction will love it, I am sure. Indeed, one might say that it would be impossible for them not to love it.
Note: A few hardcover copies of More Things Impossible are still available from Crippen & Landru (the first collection is out of print). It's a high quality limited edition, with a frontis of Edward Hoch, and it's numbered and signed by him. There's also a tipped-in booklet with an additional Hoch story. See http://www.crippenlandru.com/books.php?bookID=75 --The Passing Tramp